It's a Crime


By Philologos

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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Bill Gladstone writes from Toronto:

At last summer’s Jewish genealogy conference in Toronto, I was intrigued when one speaker, Yale Reisner, mentioned that certain Hebrew words had crept into the Polish language in pre-war Poland. For example, machloket, which as you know means a theological dispute (applied talmudically and rabbinically), was apparently used by Poles to describe a gang-style fight on the street. What more can you tell your readers about this interesting linguistic phenomenon?

What I can tell you is that Mr. Reisner is right, and that Hebrew mah.loket, “disagreement” or “dispute,” which gives us Yiddish makhloykes, turns up in Polish both as machlojke (the Polish “j” is pronounced like a “y”) and machloje, a machlojke being a little machloje. The existence of these two variants demonstrates that they were used by Polish Christians who had no knowledge of Yiddish and who took the ke of makhloykes to be the Polish diminutive rather than part of the original word. My friend, the Polish-born Israeli writer Uri Orlev, who is responsible for most of the information in today’s column, told me that he himself knows the word machloje not in the sense of a gang fight but in that of an argument or shady business deal, from which comes the verb machlowac´, to act as a go-between or to put one over on somebody. But that machloje should mean both a shady deal and a gang fight is perfectly in keeping with the general tendency of Hebrew/Yiddish words in Polish, as can be seen by some of the following examples:

• Twise (Polish “w” is pronounced like a “v” or sometimes — as here — an “f”), a prison. From Yiddish tfise, from Hebrew t’fisah, the act of catching or being caught.

• Szachraj, a petty swindler. From Yiddish soykher, a merchant or cheat, from Hebrew, a merchant.

• Meline, a hideout, especially of thieves; a place to cache stolen goods; a private dwelling or apartment in which bootleg liquor is sold. From Yiddish meline, a hideout, from Hebrew m’lunah, a place to sleep.

• Lejkech, a thief who specializes in pickpocketing drunks. From Hebrew loke’ah., someone who takes.

• Szmaje, a police interrogation. From Hebrew shmi’ah, hearing.

• Nawke, a woman thief. From Yiddish nafke, a prostitute, from Aramaic nafka, meaning the same thing.

• Tref, something that can’t be stolen because there are police around or in the know. From Yiddish treyf, not kosher, from Hebrew t’refah, non-kosher meat.

• Szytwa, a card partner, cheating at cards. From Yiddish shutef, a partner, from Hebrew shutaf, meaning the same thing.

• Szaber, a pickaxe for making a hole in a wall; also, the act of ransacking or looting a home. This yields the verb szabrowac´, to loot, and the noun szabrownik, a looter. From the Hebrew verb shavar, to break. My friend Uri, who survived part of World War II as a boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, remembers that szaber was the word used for ransacking the empty apartments of Jews who had already been sent to the death camps by the Nazis. He himself was often sent as a szabrownik to look for food or usable items in such apartments.

Of course, not every Yiddish word found in Polish has to do with the underworld or crime. Quite a few do not, such as balagula, “wagon driver,” myszures, “servant,” myszygiene, “crazy,” and so on. But there is no doubt that a disproportionate number are connected with criminal activity. Why?

The answer, I think, is that, until the 20th century, social contact in Poland between Christians and Jews was probably most intensive among criminals. This is not really so surprising. Jews and Christians in Poland traditionally led separate lives, even if they met in the streets, shops, and marketplaces. Upper-class Poles did not socialize with rich Jews; middle-class Poles did not socialize with middle-class Jews, and lower-class Poles certainly did not socialize with poor Jews. The taboos on Christian-Jewish socialization broke down most in those circles where numerous others taboos were ignored, too — that is, in the world of crime. Jewish and Polish thieves, burglars, pickpockets, fences, pimps, prostitutes, bootleggers and swindlers had no compunction about working closely with each other because they had no compunction about disobeying social norms in general. And since law-breakers in all societies tend to develop thieves’ argots, that is, private languages that help hide their activities from the outside world, it was entirely natural for Polish criminals to borrow Hebrew/Yiddish vocabulary from Jews that other Poles would not understand.

There are other European countries in which one can point to similar phenomena. If one looks at the Dutch slang of Amsterdam known as Bargoens, for example, or the largely extinct lower-class vernaculars of Germany known collectively as Rotwelsch, one also sees a great deal of thieves’ argot deriving from Hebrew and Yiddish. The subject of underworld ties between Jews and Christians in Europe is one that, for understandable reasons, Jewish historians have tended to shy away from, but it is an interesting one, linguistically as well as sociologically, that deserves serious investigation.

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